Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

Sufficient unto the Day

The TV action serial 24 has been revived. You remember that show, right? Jack Bauer running around shouting “We’re running out of time” into his cell phone while harried computer experts in a dimly lit room squinted at floor plans on a monitor. Every segment ended with the sound of an enormous alarm clock being crushed repeatedly: Changchank. Changchank. Changchank.

The first show premiered two months after 9/11 and was an odd form of comfort food for a nervous, unsettled audience. Its hero was patriotic, clear-eyed, and capable of, shall we say, improvisational persuasion when it came to national security. Sample:

Jack: Tell me where the bomb is!

Sneering terrorist: Never. Your infidel president, his cabinet, and also your daughter who is involved in a seemingly unrelated subplot — all will die horribly!

Jack: This is your last chance!

Terrorist (sneering): American fool! I am a soldier of God, swarthy and stubbled! I have sworn to Sheik Aroma Bin-Ladle that I will never –

Jack: (Saws off terrorist’s leg)

Terrorist (screaming): I will tell you everything including my Hotmail password.

Jack: That’s a start! (Beats terrorist with severed leg)

It struck a nerve at the time — or, rather, salved a raw one. We knew that Jack Bauer’s secret outfit, CTU, wasn’t real. But surely the government had something like that, right? A place with lots of monitors and young people who knew how to hack into things by typing really quickly, then saying, “There’s encryption in the firewall, I’m going to inject an SQL Trojan,” and then they could access all the records of the Lebanese warlord behind the evil plot to blow things up.

The show also had the foresight to make the POTUS an African American — a new idea for some, though old-hat for those who knew from movies that Morgan Freeman was the first black president. There would be a female president later, because the producers saw Hillary the way NASA astronomers detect asteroids that won’t enter our solar system for ten years.

Oh, it was great. At first. Then it swerved into the left lane, as these things do.

The bad guys, revealed in the second half of the series, usually turned out to be a front for the League of Shadowy White Capitalists. The writers treated Jack so shabbily you expected the last season to be nothing but Jack on hold with the VA for 24 hours, trying to get painkillers for his leg.

Now it’s back. The first episode seems to reflect the new tropes of the Trump times, as if the producers saw his election months in advance. The bad hombres are Arab terrorists who are breaking into the homes of Special Forces operatives and killing everyone in revenge for the assassination of Sheik Yemini Krikit, or someone.

You just know that every one of these guys not only is devoted to the destruction of America but is probably also overstaying a visa. The super-terrorists also want a box that has a flash drive with the names and locations of terrorist sleeper cells — which means there are agents planted all over America ready to blow things up on behalf of whatever Islamist group the writers wanted to stand in for ISIS. When the word comes down from the Top Sheik, they’ll activate the network of 25-year-old single male refugees who claimed to persecute Syrian puppy vets!

In other words — ripped from the headlines! As timely as tomorrow’s news!

Except this is 24, and you know this isn’t what it’s really about. It may look like a terrorist plan to cripple America, but it’s really going to be about a cabal of corporate executives led by Jon Voight who want to increase drug prices.

There’s a new Jack Bauer, named Corey Hawkins; he’s an African-American spec-ops guy who’s just as brave, and also doesn’t need to eat or use the bathroom.

He’s good in the role, but he’s not having a good time. No one in TV who is defending America has a good time. Compare these characters to James Bond, who was always going to exotic locales, wooing a beautiful biochemist named Bosom DeChlorophylle while trying to find a missing aircraft carrier.

We can’t have that sort of blithe, confident, dapper national symbol anymore. Our shadowy soldiers must be dark, gritty, conflicted, anguished, and so on — and it has to slap us in the face with the wet mackerel of our bigotry. Example: There’s a powerful government figure who’s nominally Hispanic; you get the sense that the producers thought, “He’s ethnic, but he’s, you know, Jimmy Smits ethnic.”

The character — played by Jimmy Smits, as it happens — has a Muslim aide, who isn’t Huma Abedin at all, no sir. There’s an accusation that she attended a radical mosque and used her position to access secret documents. This happens in the second episode, so it’s possible she’ll be exonerated in the fourth but re-indicted in the 17th when it turns out she really works for fake Islamic terrorists in league with Opus Dei.

If the 24 reboot does well, the next season will have to adapt to a changing cultural landscape, and you know Hollywood will step up to the plate and tailor its product to reflect the new zeitgeist.

Hour 1: A threat is made against a brash, unconventional president by white nationalists who are furious the POTUS hasn’t banned all Muslims yet.

Hours 2–24: The hero agent sits in a café doodling on a napkin, occasionally checking Twitter to see if anything is happening, sending all the calls from CTU to voicemail. Changchank. Changchank. Changchank.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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